Sudden Spoon

Collaborative Close Readings

Terms: business and parable in “Vespers”

I think that a certain mode of interaction with divinity is at work in this poem. Louise Glück’s “Vespers” takes me to some parables, in particular those where a landlord leaves the land to his tenant and returns after a time to call them to account. The Parable of the Talents is perhaps the most famous, but there are others. The persona here sounds like a tenant, but one who recognizes the landlord for the divinity he symbolically is (one who could “withhold// heavy rains”).

I am interested in the diction, especially in the words found at the outset, such as “anticipating,”  “return on investment,” and “principally,” all of which where ripped right out of a business management textbook. Because of these words, by the time we arrive at the addressee’s “heart” and the persona’s “doubt” regarding his understanding of it, “that term” takes on another meaning (or understanding) as a period in the venture, or a phase (“twelve weeks of summer”). That’s in business, but it glides (too smoothly, perhaps) into parable where the “term” is the span of time allotted to by the lord to the tenant to work the land and, in the process, to prove the worth of the earth as well as of the self.

“That term” has another layer for me: metapoetry. Here we return to the place (or figure, as in this poem) where the word “term,” like other words, could be taken in all its multivalence to bear fruit, become “heart”. In fact, we could make a case of the addressee here as poetry itself, as that which withdraws inspiration (in your absence) so that the poet is forcefully abandoned to work the earth.

While doing so, she believes in a return, a second coming which is desired, of course, but also dreaded, because she will be called into account (the Vespers, the evening prayers, the closing of the day), and she fears coming to poetry empty-handed, especially as that would mean that all she has done was waste “that term”: earth, time, and precious life, the span of her heart (perhaps also not only her life, but the lives of those she “grows” such as tomatoes, relationships, children).

Vines here is a particularly cruel word. In parable, that means grapes, and wine, and crushing. But the vines also are entangling, like flaws in verse, or wrong life-choices. And there must be a sense of power here, for the persona, when she takes responsibility for that which provides life as well as chokes it out of us.


About dennisaguinaldo

Father of two, husband of one, reader of many.

10 comments on “Terms: business and parable in “Vespers”

  1. Elizabeth Evans
    November 27, 2012

    Thank you, Dennis, for providing our first close reading! Good job. I am interested in the possible metapoetic metaphor.

    • dennisaguinaldo
      November 27, 2012

      “Verse” shares the same etymological root as words like reverse, converse, and inverse and traditionally same sense of the “turn” (These turns are ascribed to the rows of farms, the furrows, which are seen as correlates of the lines in a poem. Aside from formal turns, a poem is usually expected to make a turn in narrative or rhetorical turns. A sonnet takes this turn or swerve usually after the 8th line. Shakespeare takes it further than Petrarch by introducing the couplet, which some read as a further turn, or at least an introduction of a nuance of the turn. It follows rhetorical ends, because you must first show the persuasee that you know his or her mind before you take him or her turn to your point of view).

      Anyway, what I wanted to say is that the farming language commingles metapoetry, business, and parable quite naturally because of its place at the root of civilization, that which gives rise and perhaps makes necessary the forms of commerce, religion, and literature we know today.

      • Elizabeth Evans
        December 1, 2012

        Anyone who has ever dealt with bindweed might agree, Dennis! I once found tendrils of bindweed growing through my house and up under my kitchen sink and out through the moldings.

        But in general, “vines” make me think of vineyards, wine, and the various parables of vineyards in the Bible, which are much older associations in my memory. In the context of the poem, I just thought of tomato vine. But there is definitely a connection to the parable of the absent landlord.

  2. Nadia Ghent
    December 1, 2012

    Yes, I absolutely agree that Gluck is addressing poetry here and her role as nurturer of her verse, her “rows” or lines of verse like the rows of blighted tomatoes in her frost-killed garden. And the absence can certainly be seen as the difficulty a poet has with maintaining output and quality with the lack of financial support for being a poet.

    I was just a bit curious why you feel that “vines” is a cruel word. To me it signals a kind of branching out, entangling, as you write, but in an organic and continuously expanding way. I am reminded of the grape vines I planted in my own garden that grew with such intense vigor every spring after I had totally given them up for dead–this routine went on for 14 years! You’d think that I would have learned to expect their resurrection!

    Thank you so much for your extremely thoughtful close reading. I do like this poem a lot, and I am eager to read more of Gluck, especially the other Vespers poems.

  3. Elizabeth Evans
    December 1, 2012

    I think another word that points to the metapoetic is “foreshadowing,” that technique of fiction that tells the reader something bad is about to happen.

    • dennisaguinaldo
      December 1, 2012

      God, poetry? Perhaps death is what’s immune to foreshadowing? This is one of the puzzles in the poem for me.

  4. dennisaguinaldo
    December 1, 2012

    I can’t take vines as a purely beneficent, life-giving image. Maybe because weeds also come in the form of vines. The god of wine, Dionysus, uses vines to collapse buildings, ships. It can be viewed as an entropic symbol, or if that’s too exaggerated, at least a symbol of the earth taking back (in) the constructs of man, as well as man’s own corporeal form. I suppose that the persona’s claiming responsibility over her constructs, her verses, even her life. But the way it sounds to me, she seems likewise staking a claim upon her own death, or at least its form: how she has decreed her decline to proceed entwined with her the fortunes of her verse.

  5. Nadia Ghent
    December 2, 2012

    I think it is significant that Gluck chooses tomatoes and not grapes or worse–pomegranates!–since the vegetal allusion gives the poem a more distinctly organic and, I think, life-affirming feel. Tomatoes seem so simple and uncomplicated: not as much mythical baggage as grapes or pomegranates. The vine imagery is powerful, though– generative yet also choking. She has to nurture them in either circumstance.

    • dennisaguinaldo
      December 2, 2012

      Early on, I wanted to know the implications of using tomatoes, and this reading fits! It’s a weekly, almost daily thing, so much so that you could lose that all that color (we love it in every one of its stages, from green to red, and all the minglings of yellow and orange in between) and succulence if you don’t pay good attention, the type of attention an artist would give. Of course also, a poet like Gluck.

      It’s not a special occasion fruit, or something so otherworldly as the pomegranate, it’s almost unsymbolic because of its dailiness. Perhaps she sees her poems (or her vocation) in the image of the tomato.

  6. trjst
    December 4, 2012

    Tomatoes are fundamental food. Many people revere tomatoes. A good tomato is revered in the culinary world. A good tomato is hard to come by. The memory of a great tomato is better than any tomato at hand.

    I like your close reading, Dennis, but I’m all hung up on the tomato now.

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2012 by in Week 1.
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